THE LUFTWAFFE’S NIGHT PRINCES BATTLE THE ROYAL AIR FORCE

At the start of World War Two, aerial combat had been around for less than 30 years. In Germany, like in other countries, flying was believed to be glamorous and pilots were thought of as brave,  chivalrous and romantic. Among Germany’s knights of the sky were two princes of great skill and daring. They would both win Germany’s highest awards and risk their lives for their Führer and the Third Reich.

At the beginning of WWII,  a night fighter force was seen as a necessary, but not very useful wing of the German Luftwaffe. For most confident and hungry young men, flying twin engine aircraft in night fighters squadrons seemed more like a punishment than an opportunity.



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Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 Nachtjäger

However, in 1940, when German twin-engine Zerstörer groups were decimated during the Battle of Britain, pilots who had been transferred from regular fighter groups  to night fighter squadrons began to appreciate their re-assignments. Realizing that the change from flying daytime missions against nimble Hurricanes and Spitfires to nighttime interception of British bombers probably saved their lives. As the war continued, Luftwaffe night fighters proved their worth as RAF Bomber Command stepped up its bombing campaign against the Reich. By wars end, the Luftwaffe night fighter wing became one of Germany’s most consistent and effective organizations.

Heinrich Alexander Ludwig Peter Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was born on August 14, 1916 in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father, Gustav Alexander Prince zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was a diplomat at the German embassy in Copenhagen.



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Luftwaffe night fighter ace Heinrich Alexander Ludwig Peter Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein joined the Hitler Youth on 12 April 1932. In 1937 he joined the cavalry before being accepted into the Luftwaffe. Eager to see combat, he flew as an observer and later as a pilot in the Heinkel He-111 with Kampfgeschwader I and Kampfgschwader 51 during the Battle of France, Battle of Britain and the German invasion of Russia. Observation and bombing were not where the Prince saw his true abilities blossoming. In late 1941, Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein transferred to the night fighters where he claimed his first aerial victory on the night of 6/7 May 1942.

Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was regarded as a great pilot, and excellent shot and a large personality. By October 1942, he held Germany’s highest award; the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and claimed 22 victories. By January of 1944, Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein claimed 83 aerial victories and added oak leaves to his Knight’s cross symbolizing a second award of the medal.

For all his medals and heroism, Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein had his detractors as well. Another night fighter pilot, Wilhelm Johnen, claimed that the Prince had once made his radio operator stand to attention in the plane and confined him to his quarters for three days because the man had lost radar contact with the enemy during a mission.

Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was also said to use his seniority to give him the best shot at the bombers. Telling other pilots who had already made contact with a bomber to quit their pursuit and leave the plane to him.

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Lancasters of RAF Bomber Command attack Germany

Wolfgang Falck, the father of the German night fighting force felt that Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein was “…not the type to be a leader of a unit. He was not a teacher, educator or instructor,“ but Falck lauded the Prince as having “an astonishing sixth sense—an intuition that permitted him to see and even feel where other aircraft were. It was like a personal radar system.”

By 1943, Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein had become disillusioned with Hitler and contemplated shooting him at the award ceremony for his Knight’s Cross. However, Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein continued to fight for Germany, partly out of a sense of duty to his country but also due to his desire to achieve more aerial victories than his fellow pilots.

Egmond Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld was born on July 14, 1918 in Salzburg, Austria. Prinz zur Lippe Weissenfeld was given a classical education, cultivating a love of music, sports, outdoors and hunting. As a teenager he discovered a passion for flying and became proficient at piloting gliders.

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Egmond Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld

In 1936 at age 18, Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld joined the Austrian Bundesheer where he as trained as an infantryman. Although he performed his duties ably, the skies were what called him. After Austria was absorbed into the Hitler’s Reich, taking its military with it, Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld joined the Luftwaffe and became a pilot in their twin engine fighter wing. He flew the Messerschmidt Bf-110 with Zerstörergeschwader 76 before transferring again to the night fighters with Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 on August 4, 1940.

With his background in hunting and gliding, the Prince was an excellent shot and a natural pilot. His first victory was on 16/17 November 1940, where he claimed a Vickers Wellington bomber. By April 1942 he had shot down 21 planes and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. By July 1942 he claimed 37 victories. Promoted in rank to Captain, Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld was given command of his own fighter group and was awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross on August 2, 1943.

Despite all of his success in battle, the years of combat and wartime flying eventually caught up with him. On March 12, 1944, Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld, along with his crewmembers, Oberfeldwebel Josef Renette and Unteroffizier Kurt Röber, were killed in a flying accident on a flight from Parchim to Athies-sous-Laon. Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld’s Bf-110 crashed into the Ardennes mountains near St. Hubert where the charred wreck was found the next day. They are thought to have encountered a bad weather zone with low clouds and a dense snowstorm and hit elevated ground after being forced to fly lower because of ice on the wings.



By the time Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld was killed, his fellow prince, Sayn-Wittgenstein had been dead for months.

On January 21,1944, Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, had taken off for an intercept mission flying in the Ju-88. After making attacks on five British Lancaster bombers, Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein’s Ju-88 came under attack and his left wing caught fire. Sayn-Wittgenstein ordered his crew to bail out and then he disappeared into the night. His body was found near the wreckage of his plane in a forest the next day.

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JU-88G nightfighter

Due to fractures on his head and an undeployed parachute, it was assumed the Prince hit the airplane when bailing out and was knocked unconscious. Two days later he was posthumously awarded the swords to his Knight’s Cross after having flown 320 combat missions, and claiming 83 victories.

Although no Allied claims for a kill that night were made, No. 141 squadron’s Mosquito F.II, DZ303, piloted by Pilot Officer Desmon Snape with radio operator Flying Officer L. Fowler reported radar contact with an enemy plane at a quarter past 11 o’clock. They attacked a Ju-88 and damaged it behind the cockpit but did not claim a kill since they did not see it go down.  This attack matched the time and place where Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein went down.

After the war, the bodies of Prinz Egmont zur Lippe-Weissenfeld, and Prinz Heinrich zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, aged 25 and 27 respectively, were buried side by side at Ysselsteyn war cemetery, in the Netherlands.



For More Reading On Luftwaffe Night Fighters Check Out:

Wolfgang Falck: Father of the Night Fighters


Princes of Darkness: The Lives of Luftwaffe Night Fighter Aces Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and Egmont Prinz zur Lippe-Weissenfeld


For Related Articles See:

One thought on “THE LUFTWAFFE’S NIGHT PRINCES BATTLE THE ROYAL AIR FORCE

  • Bill Getz says:

    These two princess inspired part of the plot in my first novel, “Double Eagles,” and are mentioned in the story. The editors of “A War to be Won” were kind enough to give attention to this novel.

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